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‘The Sandman’: In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (review)

When author Neil Gaiman was challenged to give a one-line summary to his famously sprawling The Sandman, he offered the following: “The King of Dreams learns that he must change or die, and makes his choice.”

Fans of the graphic novel masterpiece know how Morpheus finally chose. The creators of Netflix’s streaming adaptation are apparently still making theirs. How much can/should/must this 33-year-old property evolve to suit changing times?

This would be a challenge with any graphic novel—context and nuance are always the first casualties of adaptation—but it’s a particularly thorny one for Sandman.

The culture has marched on since Sandman’s 1989 debut. Back when Gaiman based his Death on Cinnamon Hadley and Tori Amos, ankh-wearing Goth goddesses could still be found in the waking world.

In the first shock of AIDS, Gaiman was a groundbreaker for including gay and lesbian characters who had more to do than dress the stage and die tragically (okay, a few of them did die tragically).

Now that queer culture in general—and drag queens in particular—are largely mainstreamed, Sandman actually has some catching up to do.

Then there’s bigger dramatic hurdle of the title character himself.

Only four of the original series’ ten collections really follow the adventures of Dream of the Endless; in the others he’s relegated to the part of distant observer, a deus ex machina who only shows up at the end to untangle an intractable plotline and presumably pick up his per diem.

You can imagine the tsuris this led to in the writers’ room: how do you tell the story of a character who isn’t always in his own story?

The first half of the debut season—based on the first Sandman collection Preludes & Nocturnes—doesn’t have to answer this question, since it deals entirely with Lord Morpheus’s struggle to escape his imprisonment, reclaim his magical tools, and rebuild his kingdom. The second half, revolving around The Doll’s House, occasionally has to invent ways to keep Dream at the center of the action. It does this in part by giving the story something that Gaiman seemed to avoid in the original—a major antagonist in the form of The Corinthian, a literal nightmare who decided to enter the waking world and thus inspire generations of serial killers.

In the graphic novel, he’s small potatoes: a danger to mortals but not to Dream himself, who wipes him out with a word. In the series, he’s hatching plots to assassinate his creator. If he fails, it’s not because he wasn’t enough of a nightmare but because he forgot what it means to be a nightmare.

Which leads to the second big change made by the creative team of Gaiman, David S. Goyer, and Allan Heinberg: the explanations.

A large part of the magic of the graphic novel depends on its refusal to explain anything. It observes, it muses, it ponders (Gaiman will frequently interrupt a narrative to have a character retell the original version of “Little Red Riding Hood” or provide the etymology of bezoar): but it does not tell us why Desire hates dream or why Rose Walker is a vortex or even why vortexes happen. The series explains all of this and more. Most critically, it explains why dreams and nightmares—or even the Endless— cause trouble when they stop reflecting the impulses of mortals and try to take over the narrative. In so doing, it sacrifices much of Gaiman’s magical nimbus for the sake of letting the uninitiated know what the hell is going on.

Occasionally the explaining is paining—Morpheus informs Dee that “You destroyed the ruby and released the power inside it” literal seconds after he did just that in front of our eyes—but overall, it helps.

One of Gaiman’s great strengths, his power of invention, often comes at the expense of clarity. The man has ideas—so many that his plots occasionally grind to a dead halt while he dazzles us. A serial killer convention? Amazing. What does it have to do with the plot of The Doll’s House? Dunno, but it’s brilliant. In a self-paced medium like a graphic novel, meandering is not a major sin, particularly when the story is meant to echo the disjointed illogic of dreams. When you bring that story to the screen, you can’t just paddle the boat around. Every stroke has to bring you closer to the finish.

Does it succeed?

Sometimes to a fault. Many of the early collections’ most cherished issues—“The Sound of Her Wings” (which introduces big sister Death), “Men of Good Fortune” (ditto the immortal Hob Gadling), and “24 Hours” (retitled “24/7” in the series)—were intentional side trips from the main narrative, sacrificing plot for the sake of character investigation. There was no way not to include these side trips without harming the narrative, but including them in a plot-driven Sandman makes them feel wedged-in.

Pacing is the series’ one big defect.

I’m not sure what decision process led the producers to compress two complete storylines into the first season—perhaps they feared there might not be a second?—but it makes everything feel rushed. We don’t always have time to understand where we are before the story’s moved us somewhere else. Worse, we can’t always get to know the supporting cast as well as we ought to. Which is a shame, because Gaiman’s side characters are always worth knowing. He once said that when he sat down to write Death or Merv Pumpkinhead or Hob Gadling, he always imagined that he was paying them a million dollars a minute—an incentive not to overuse them, but also a motivation to make sure those characters earned their keep.

In the streaming Sandman, characters don’t always get a chance to settle in before they’re put to work—and that work is frequently done, and the character whisked away, before we’ve had a chance to enjoy their company. Death and Hob come off well: they have to share an episode, but at least they don’t have any major responsibilities to the plot. Merv and Lucifer, not so much.

There’s been a lot of debate over the gender-swapping and color-blind casting of the supporting cast, but once you watch the episodes it doesn’t turn out to be that big a deal. Very few of the characters really need to be assigned the same race or gender they had in the novels—we are talking about dreams and mythological figures, after all—and most of the swaps are engaging, occasionally inspired. Does it matter that Lucien is now Lucienne? Not really… maybe a little. One narrative motif that Gaiman weaves throughout the novels is the death of Black female characters, killed in fire—a psychic scar caused by the doom of Nada, the semi-mythic queen who once rejected Morpheus. Now that Lucienne, Rose Walker, and Death herself are all women of color, it will be interesting to see if that thread persists.

But the casting was brilliant.

Tom Sturridge lends touches of humor and tenderness to the famously grim Morpheus. Stephen Fry is marvelously plummy as Gilbert/Fiddler’s Green. David Thewlis gives an oddly companionable elegance to the one-note psychopath John Dee. Kirby Howell-Baptiste owns her cameo as the most humane incarnation of Death yet conceived. Of all, the absolute triumph is Mason Alexander Park, wondrous as Desire. In the novels, Dream’s scheming sibling looked suspiciously like those awful Nagel prints you saw on college dorm walls, but Park is an explosion of seduction and sly mirth.

On the other hand, Gwendoline Christie took a little getting used to. Gaiman himself based Lucifer on David Bowie (he reportedly told artist Mike Dringenberg, “If it isn’t David Bowie, you’re going to have to redo it until it is David Bowie”), so I can hopefully be forgiven for saying that Christie is many wonderful things but one of them is not David Bowie. Her Lucifer is stately, powerful—but not much of a rebel rebel. When she promises to destroy Morpheus, you half expect her to add, “I swear it by the old gods and the new.”

The supporting characters represent the biggest change of all, though it’s not one that will likely matter to casual viewers. There was a time when Sandman was part of the DC universe, and the Dreaming a kind of retirement home for half-forgotten DC figures like Matthew Cable (a minor Swamp Thing villain, now voiced in raven form by the unavoidable Patton Oswalt), Kirby-era Sandman goons Brute & Glob (replaced in the series by Gault, a nightmare who dreams of becoming a dream) and Lucien (previous host of the short-lived Tales of Ghost Castle). Cain and Abel are still inhabiting their respective houses of Mystery and Secrets, but Lyta and Hector Hall have been un-superheroed into a pair of married architects (?). If the series makes it to the climactic chapter The Kindly Ones, this decision could be problematic. Hippolyta Trevor Hall was, after all, The Fury before she joined the furies.

After two viewings—one for the heart, one for the head—this lifelong Sandman fan believes they more than got it right.

Of course, “getting it right” is a fan’s priority, and it won’t succeed if it’s just for the fans. Netflix’s entire p.r. campaign for the series seems to have been, “Neil likes it.” Considering that Neil once wrote that we should never trust the storyteller, only the story, I think we can aim a little higher. Sandman is a story about stories—not just the dreams we have each night, but what T.E. Lawrence called the dreams by day, the change we create through our beliefs and actions.

Change may well be the single most important word in Sandman, whose epitaph Omni Mutantur, Nihil Obstat (“Everything changes, nothing is truly lost”) reminds us that transformation is the way of all things. Morpheus, whose name forms the root of “metamorphosis,” made his choice. The producers of Sandman are making theirs—to put the story in this world and not that of three decades past. It now comes to us in a time when everything seems to be changing, and when many important things now seem forever lost.

The streaming Sandman triumphs over the original with a story that’s not rooted in nostalgia or arcana, but tied to the magic of the waking world.

Morpheus makes his choice. Perhaps he will help us make ours.

 

 

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